An Evolutionary Approach to Motivation and Learning: Differentiating Biologically Primary and Secondary Knowledge

Kate M. Xu*, Sarah Coertjens, Florence Lespiau, Kim Ouwehand, Hanke Korpershoek, Fred Paas, David C. Geary

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


The ubiquity of formal education in modern nations is often accompanied by an assumption that students’ motivation for learning is innate and self-sustaining. The latter is true for most children in domains (e.g., language) that are universal and have a deep evolutionary history, but this does not extend to learning in evolutionarily novel domains (e.g., mathematics). Learning in evolutionarily novel domains requires more cognitive effort and thus is less motivating. The current study tested the associated hypothesis that learning will feel easier and more motivating for evolutionarily relevant (e.g., “mother,” “food”) than evolutionarily novel (e.g., “computer,” “gravity”) word pairs and that a growth mindset emphasizing the importance of effort in learning might moderate this effect. Specifically, 144 adults were presented with 32 word pairs (half evolutionarily relevant and half evolutionarily novel) and were randomly assigned to a growth mindset or a control condition. Evolutionarily relevant words were better remembered than evolutionarily novel words (d = 0.65), and the learning was reported as more enjoyable (d = 0.49), more interesting (d = 0.38), as well as less difficult (d = − 0.96) and effortful (d = − 0.78). Although the growth mindset intervention fostered a mindset belief, compared to the control condition, it did not lead to improved recall performance or changes in motivational beliefs. These results are consistent with the prediction of higher motivation and better learning of evolutionarily relevant words and concepts than for evolutionarily novel words and concepts. Implications for future research and educational practice are discussed.

Original languageEnglish
Article number45
Number of pages19
JournalEducational Psychology Review
Issue number2
Early online date18 Apr 2024
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 18 Apr 2024


  • Biologically primary knowledge
  • Biologically secondary knowledge
  • Evolution
  • Learning
  • Motivation


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